Papua New Guinea – Chapter 8: Mt. Hagen

Friday – Sunday.  August 10-12, 2012.

We rose at 4am to catch our 6am flight to Port Moresby and connected (without delay!) to our flight to Mt. Hagen.  We were met at the Hagan airport by Pym Mamindi, owner of Paiya Tours, the organizer we chose for our highlands tour.  The baggage claim experience was unlike any other airport we’ve been to with scheduled flights.  First, the baggage claim area was nothing more than a concrete slab out in the open beside the terminal.  Second, the baggage handlers just wheeled over the baggage carts and dropped pallets stacked high with baggage on the ground, letting us passengers mine the piles to find our own bags.  Somehow it all worked out.  Meanwhile, I went into the departure “hall” to use the restroom, which was, bar none, the most revolting restroom I’d ever used… you really don’t want the description, particularly if you’re reading this shortly before a meal!

Pym drove us through the town of Mt. Hagen, past top-of-the-line hotels in the center of town, which just like the Gateway Hotel at Port Moresby airport, sported 10 foot walls topped with razor wire, and guard towers staffed by guards with automatic weapons.  We passed wrecked cars and trucks, stripped to their bare chassis and left for dead on the roadsides.  Elsewhere, we encountered more rusty carcasses serving as fences and barriers.  We passed mounds of trash a couple of yards high that lined the roadside for two to three hundred yard stretches on both ends of town.  Pym explained there was no trash collection in the district.  It was unclear if these roadsides were just more convenient for dumping than the local landfill, or whether an actual landfill even existed.

_MG_5598-95We continued out of town and eventually started to climb to Pym’s village, Paiya, to attend a “mini-festival” that Pym had organized to take place the day before the big Mount Hagen Sing-Sing.  It was practically a command performance, with only about two dozen foreigners in the audience.  Half of those would be our fellow guests at Pym’s Magic Mountain Nature Lodge where we’d be staying, just up the road from Paiya.  The groups that performed were varied and spectacular in their costumes and make-up.  The Huli Wigmen from Tari easily captured our “most spectacular” award, with their bodies covered in red makeup, faces painted equally bright, septums pierced with feathers, bones, shells or grass stems, and heads covered in huge wigs.

Our“Most Surreal” award, however, went to three dancers from the Lido in Paris, well over six feet tall even before they stepped into their 6” heels, and adorned in bright pink feathers and little else.  A year earlier, a Frenchman had brought a troupe of Huli to Paris to perform, and thought it would be a terrific idea to send a “representative” troupe from France to show the Papuans a “traditional French dance group.”  The French ladies paraded in with the wigmen, looking as out of place as if they had rocketed in from Mars.

Running second, albeit a distant second, in the “Most Surreal” competition, was the experience of sitting in a remote jungle outpost several days later and seeing a feature story in one of the two national English language newspapers, the Papua New Guinea Post Courier… about the latest escapade of the Kardashians.  The surreal juxtaposition of location, media and content called into question whether the biggest cultural impact of the transition from stone tools to the Internet was the superimposition of global pop culture on the indigenous ancient culture of tribal fidelity and inter-tribal hostility. Where it will lead is a question that only time will answer.

After the festival we walked back to the van, passing two pigsties that housed a dozen or more pigs, including some very large ones.  They were all owned by Pym, and attested to his wealth and stature.

We rode in the van another mile or so up the paved road, then stopped and transferred to a four-wheel drive jeep that conveyed us a kilometer or so up a steep, rocky, rutted jeep trail to Magic Mountain Nature Lodge, which had been built and was owned by Pym, and was to be our home for the next three nights.

IMG_9325-88The lodge is named after the mountain that rises behind it.  It’s comprised of a central kitchen, dining room and breakfast deck overlooking the valley far below, and nine individual bungalows built in the local style, with tin roofs and woven bamboo walls.  These unheated abodes were quite nice, though the bamboo walls did little to keep out the unseasonable cold that gripped the highlands at our 7500’ elevation.  Worse though, was the absence of hot water to the huts on our side of the resort because of a problem with the solar hot water system for our huts.  Luckily, just three nights later, the other guests departed and we were able to move into huts on the other side of the resort and take much needed hot showers, our first in almost a week.

IMG_9340-90Breakfast was served on the deck above a mist-shrouded valley far below.  Dinner was served buffet style in the dining room for the 16 or so guests of the resort.  It was their busiest weekend of the year because of the Mt. Hagen Sing-Sing.  We all sat around a large conference-like table for dinner, and the conversations with the other travelers proved interesting, and quickly turned lively when Pym began telling us about local customs.

Pym explained that Hagen men like to be known as big (i.e. important) men, but most hide their wealth because they are afraid that others will kill them out of envy and desire for their position and power.  In the highlands, he tells us, disputes are resolved directly by the participants, sometimes through negotiations but other times by killing.  However, unlike other regions, such as in the Sepik basin from which we’d just arrived, people in the highlands don’t do their killing by invoking spirits.  He explained that on the coast or river, people invoke spirits and cause the condemned to die within a few weeks, which reminded us of the story Pomat had told us the week before about the death sentence of the Kanganaman bilum thief.  In the highlands, Pym went on, the favorite method is poisoning.

In addition to operating his lodge and tour company, Pym is the second in command of the Hagen government, and he fears other men will kill him out of envy.  As a result, Pym told us, “I only eat food prepared by my wife.  And I know how my enemies are going to come for me.  They’ll do it through my children.  They’ll give them poison and tell them to sprinkle it on my food because it will make it taste better and that I’ll love the child who does this even more than I love my other children.”

He said that coastal people consider the highlanders to be just stone-wielding barbarians.  And of course, until 40-70 years ago, that was a pretty accurate statement since many of the highlands tribes had never encountered an outsider before, and still used the same stone tools that their ancestors had been using since they arrived in New Guinea 40,000 years ago.  Pym said that actually the Highlands people had advanced quickly and now tribes in other areas were the backward ones.  As an example, he told of a Sepik tribe who refused medical supplies and treatment from a physician because shortly before the doctor’s arrival, a shaman foretold of a stranger coming to steal the hearts of their children.

A thirty-something German couple staying at the lodge told amazing stories of their travels by motorbike to remote and even warring areas of the world, including Kashmir, the “Stans” and Iran.  They would fly to a place, buy one or two used motorbikes, and set off on an adventure.  They had come to Hagen from Goroka by PCV (Personal Conveyance Vehicle… covered flatbed trucks with benches down the sides of their beds, which serve as buses in the region).  In Goroka a few days before, one of the staff at their hotel had taken them to his village where they spent a night or two with his family.  As they waited for dinner, which involved something that was being deep fried, they saw a small girl catch a huge spider, pull of its legs, and throw the body and head into the boiling oil.  Plucking it out a few seconds later, she popped it into her mouth and crunched away with a big smile.

A Canadian couple related a story they had heard from another traveler, who was trying to make some arrangements with a Papuan who was about to go back to his village because his uncle had just died.  He explained that he was needed to join in consuming the body, including eating his uncle’s heart.  Of course, this was a third-hand story, so it may have been embellished in the repeated telling, or it’s possible the Papuan exaggerated to excite his listener, or… it’s quite possible the story was entirely true.  After all, the week before we arrived in the Sepik, 29 people were arrested just down the river in Madang province for murdering and eating seven sorcerers.  According to CBS

“Madang Police Commander Anthony Wagambie confirmed that the cult members allegedly ate their victims’ brains raw and made soup from their penises.  ‘They don’t think they’ve done anything wrong; they admit what they’ve done openly,’ Wagambie told the Associated Press by telephone.  He said the killers believed that their victims practiced Sanguma, or sorcery, and that they had been extorting money as well as demanding sex from poor villagers for their supernatural services.  By eating witch doctors’ organs, the cult members believed they would attain supernatural powers and literally become bullet-proof, he said. ‘It’s prevalent cult activity,’ Wagambie said. He said he believes there could be between 700 and 1,000 cult members in several villages in Papua New Guinea’s remote northeast interior. ‘All of them might have eaten human flesh,’ he said.”

IMG_9433-111Each morning we’d eat a simple breakfast and climb into the 4×4 to head down the rutted, bumpy, slippery track to the road where we were met for the trip into Mt. Hagen by our guide Luke and our van.  Arriving early before the Mt. Hagen sing sing, we were free to wander the open field opposite the stadium. The field served as a dressing room for the performing groups, each of whom had staked out a place for themselves.  Men, women and children were busily applying their face and body paint.  Elaborate designs were first painted in outline and then filled in.


Some people applied their own paint using compact mirrors or shards of larger broken mirrors.  Other performers applied make-up to each other, or had their make-up applied by friends or relatives who had come to assist.

Meanwhile, others from their villages began to assemble stunningly beautiful headdresses.  The feathers had been handed down “since ancestor times” and represented the entire color spectrum.  They were brought to the festival in protective tubes, in briefcases, small suitcases, and between the pages of books.  The feathers were inserted one by one into armatures made of tightly rolled bundles of leaves, or of Styrofoam covered with cloth.  Some dancers donned brightly knit stocking caps bulging with padding into which the feathers were inserted.

_MG_6016-121Costumes were adorned with leaves, moss and other natural materials.  Women who would dance topless retained their bras while dressing for the performance, and only took them off when they were ready to enter the stadium.  Everyone was happy to have their photo taken.  At one point we were approached by a young man who wanted to illegally sell us an owl for $15.

Whenever a group was ready, they walked together, singing and dancing past vendors selling souvenirs beside the walkway into the arena.  Once in the arena, each group found an open spot and began to sing and dance, and were surprisingly happy to have more photos taken of them.  It was chaotic, with no organization or structure to the entrances, the performances, or the locations.  Pym later told us, somewhat apologetically, that this year was disorganized, and that in past years, there was always an organized procession of groups into the arena, with each giving a solo performance in a central area before finding their own spot in the arena and continuing to periodically sing and dance.

Pym explained that this year, the Mt. Hagen show had been moved from the traditional show grounds to the town’s rugby stadium, because the traditional show grounds was located on the land of a particular tribe and everyone was concerned that there would be violent election-triggered inter-tribal violence if the Sing-Sing were held in that location.  The national elections had been held the previous month.  The state department websites of the US, UK, Australia and Canada all warned of possible violence during the two-week election period based on what had happened in past elections.  (It takes two weeks to hold the election, because election officials have to walk from village to village to conduct the elections in each site.)  People had expected ballots would be thrown out, or ballot boxes would be stuffed, or people would be kept from voting by threats, and that such acts would lead to violence.  But this election only resulted in a few people being killed, and some cars being overturned and set on fire, and few businesses burned down, so it was reported to have been comparatively quiet.

That said, here we were in PNG a month after the election, and there were still ongoing violent episodes pretty much across the country, so the organizers’ concern over the Sing-Sing location was clearly warranted.  In fact, this year only about 40 groups participated, Pym explained, about half the number of recent years, and with only a few exceptions this year’s groups were all from the Western, Southern and Eastern Highlands.  Only two groups had come from the coast and Sepik regions this year, compared to dozens in past years.  Pym, who was one of the show’s organizers, was really sad about it.  Nevertheless, the festival was an amazing experience, but for us perhaps one day too many.  By the second day of the Mt. Hagen Sing-Sing (our fifth day of festivals after two at Ambunti and one at Paiya) we found ourselves pretty much “festivaled out,” though we did get some great photos that day!


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